Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the immense pleasure of participating in a writing workshop with Emily Bitto, courtesy of the Faber Allen and Unwin ‘Write a Novel’ course. Having read and been enthralled by her novel The Strays, you can imagine my excitement…and she didn’t disappoint. In class we investigated, unravelled and played with ‘writing style’ be it ‘plain’ or ‘elaborate’. No doubt this is something she has examined herself, in detail, during the course of her creative writing phd. The Strays is a novel rich in characters, but it is Emily Bitto’s style of writing, a slow-gathering in, an enveloping arm, that is both alluring and slightly claustrophobic, and has stayed with me long after reading The Strays.
Although the novel starts in 1980s Australia, it is effectively a retrospective of the art scene, particularly the Heide circle of the 1930s. The story is told through the naive eyes of Lily, a girl who befriends Eva Trentham on her first day of school, and is immediately enraptured by both her and her artistic family, the Trenthams. The way they live their lives is at complete odds with the way in which Lily has been brought up; it is easy for the reader to sympathise with her outsider view and the notion that ‘other families’ and ‘other people’ live richer lives than her own. Despite her ‘ordinariness’ the Trentham family welcome her into their Bohemian bosom without so much as a blink. But from the outset, because the reader is aware that something has happened to derail this relationship, there is a constant underlying tension that both unsettles and at the same time cajoles you into wanting to know more.
The Strays is a compelling novel about art, about conventional and unconventional notions of family, about love, friendship and loss, and about the paths we choose. The reading of it is intoxicating and the style full-bodied as a rich claret.